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As another season slips away, Chargers could be facing big changes

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The Chargers' Philip Rivers fumbles on the game's final play. (Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE)

The San Diego Chargers are in trouble.

Not just in terms of injuries (of which they have a lot) or in the playoff race, but in a grander, big-picture sense, something appears to be lacking in San Diego. With each passing week, the seemingly ever-present questions about coach Norv Turner's and general manager A.J. Smith's futures with the franchise grow louder and louder.

Thursday night's 24-17 (BOX | RECAP) loss to Oakland was the Chargers' fourth straight setback. It dropped them to 4-5 and a full game back of the Raiders in the topsy-turvy (read: mediocre) AFC West.

And now it's worth asking if Turner and Smith have reached the end of the line.

San Diego won five division titles in six years from 2004-09 and just could never get over the top, bowing out in the playoffs each time. Then last year, with high expectations and a veteran roster, the Chargers finished 9-7 and missed the postseason.

Chargers president Dean Spanos brought Turner and Smith back, citing the franchise's long struggle to become a contender in the first place. But nine games into the 2011 season, you have to wonder if Spanos is rethinking that decision. San Diego is on the verge of becoming the AFC's Vikings, a team that plummets from contender to over-the-hill also-ran in a matter of a few games.

Thursday, the Chargers had three possessions in the fourth quarter, three chances to pull even with Oakland. The notion they deserved to be in this game, though, is laughable.

Oakland, with Michael Bush running wild and Carson Palmer showing off some of the reasons the Raiders traded for him, beat San Diego into the turf in the first half. The Raiders put up 293 yards of offense to the Chargers' 65 before halftime and took a 17-3 lead into the break.

Their edge really should have been bigger -- Oakland dominated on both lines, especially after San Diego lost left tackle Marcus McNeill to an early injury.

Somehow, the Chargers found their way back into things, aided by a pair of Palmer turnovers. But their late desperation efforts to get the game tied just proved what the first half had shown us -- this San Diego team is not getting it done, mentally or physically.

The play that put it all into focus came with 3:38 left in the final quarter and the Chargers still down seven. Philip Rivers heaved a deep pass into coverage, as he'd done repeatedly throughout the night, looking for Vincent Jackson to make a play in the end zone. Jackson was covered by two defenders and never even looked for the ball. As he ran past the goal line, he acted as if the ball was in a different area code.

Only it came down about two feet from him, right into the arms of Oakland safety Matt Giordano, who made the interception.

Where was the effort? Where was the spark?

San Diego came into Thursday on a three-game slide but could have retaken control of the AFC West by holding serve at home. Instead, it went through the motions in the first half, then came up short in a late rally -- a similar script to the one the Chargers followed in Week 9 against Green Bay.

For the moment at least, the division is now in the Raiders' hands. Without star running back Darren McFadden, Oakland still managed to come out and slam the ball down San Diego's throat. Bush wound up with 242 total yards, breaking Bo Jackson's single-game Oakland record.

Palmer took some big steps forward, too, in his second Raiders start, despite a costly fumble near midfield and egregious interception deep in San Diego territory -- both of which were caused by pressure. Unlike his first two Oakland appearances, which resulted in an 0-2 mark, Palmer looked comfortable in the pocket and confident throwing the ball.

He wound up with 299 passing yards and two touchdowns to emerging rookie star Denarius Moore.

Now 5-4, the Raiders have some winnable games forthcoming, plus looming rematches with the Chiefs, who routed Oakland in Week 7, and the Chargers. While things have changed over and over again in the AFC West, the Raiders took the bull by the horns Thursday.

The exact opposite is true of the Chargers. This was a tremendous opportunity for San Diego to prove it was better than 4-4, better than the inconsistent mess of a team we've seen for much of 2011.